Florence Isaac: Supporting Students Through Culture for Four Decades

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‘Kokom! You see me dancing hard for you?’

Florence Isaac doesn’t know the name of the little boy who asked her this question while she was sitting in her wheel chair at the 2016 First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv) Annual Spring Powwow Celebration. But, she’ll never forget it.

Then the little boy asked her, ‘How come you’re sitting in a wheelchair?’

“‘I boo-boo my hip’ I told that kid,” remembers Florence. “‘Oh okay, I’ll dance hard for you!’ he said.”

“You always wonder did anybody tell that kid to say that. But for a kid to tell you ‘I dance for you’ that’s why I always sit in the front those little kids, when they give you encouragement like that, you feel that good spirit,” she says.

Florence is from the Ochapowace First Nation.

“My first name that I was born with is okimaw-kihew iskwew,” says Florence.

Florence is a residential school survivor. She learned about powwow through her father.

Florence has been on the powwow committee for the First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv) for 38 years. She’s been part of the committee ever since her first cousin, Ida Wasacase, started the powwow in 1978 to raise the spirits of the students who were coming to the end of the winter semester.

Two years later, Florence started as a janitor at the university (in 1980) and worked at the university for 18 years. She is passionate when she talks about the university’s long running annual spring celebration.

“As long as I am able to walk, I will sit on the committee,” declares Florence.

“My first cousin (Ida) started the powwow and I want it to keep going,” she says. “I was so proud of her being a woman organizing a big celebration and it is still going today.”

In the 38 years the powwow has been going, Florence has witnessed the event go through many changes. In the early years, the powwow was a small traditional powwow held in the College West building at the University of Regina. Local dancers came to showcase their dance styles and three to five drum groups would attend.

It was a very small celebration until the powwow committee decided to change from traditional to a contest powwow. At a traditional powwow dancers do not compete for prizes, while at a contest powwow dancers compete for prizes in each dance category.

Today, the powwow is held at the Brandt Centre in Regina’s Exhibition Park. In 2016, there were over 500 dancers and 12 drums.

Florence’s role at the powwow has changed over the years. In the beginning, the main role Florence played was to help and support Ida by consulting elders regarding protocol.

She was also a cook for the supper that was served during the powwow, making soup and bannock for hundreds of visitors. She also managed security, which mostly meant chasing children back to their parents.

Florence has stayed involved with the powwow for so long to keep it going for her first cousin, and because she loves to watch the children grow and become accomplished powwow dancers.

“It was exciting to be on the powwow committee,” she says. “When I sit there and watch, I look at all the drums, I say ‘what a marvelous woman Ida was to have started the powwow.’”

“I always like sitting in the front row. So I can watch all children, what I call all children my grandchildren, all dancing and having a good time,” she says. “One day they are going to become leaders, which is always in my mind when I see these kids dancing. My biggest moment is watching those children dancing.”